Tearing up dance floors like Boogaloo Shrimp and Turbo while rapping about things other than why it's cool to shoot people and demean women, three sharply dressed saviors known as Black Eyed Peas may well be the antidote to hip-hop's played-out gangster themes and a triumph of substantive rap over aesthetically pleasing drivel.
"I have nothing against gangsta rap," says lead rhymer Will I Am. "There's an audience that enjoys that type of music. But you can't saturate hip-hop with just one type of music for too long. I mean, there's more parts to your car - you can't just keep putting oil in it. What about the gas? There's other forms of hip-hop, like ourselves, the Fugees, the Roots, which proves there's an audience that wants a progressive, positive form of hip-hop."
No question, the Peas aren't your average rap crew. The core of the group consists of Will I Am, a dreadlocked black man who grew up in predominantly Latino East L.A.; Apl. de. Ap., who's part Filipino and part black; and Taboo, who's Native American and Mexican and dresses up like a Ninja. Both Will and Apl. live in Silver Lake - not exactly a hip-hop-homie 'hood; in their thrift-store-style duds, the Peas aren't often spotted cruising Manchester Boulevard. "We're down with the Pharcyde and Jurassic 5," says Will, "but we were never down with a clique that had already made it."
The Peas' debut disc, Behind the Front, is a big housequake of a record that will turn your barbecue into a Mardi Gras riot, one of the most inventive rap debuts since De La Soul's Three Feet High & Rising, which is cited on the album more than once. Some serious funk gets thrown down here, and not just ye olde George Clinton samples. There's high-quality R&B, with stunning backup singer Kim Hill adding relish, and the Peas' four-piece band pulling off slick Latin-tinged numbers like "Karma" and "?Que Dices?" The rapping is stylish and fun; on "Be Free," the Peas say, "Like Devo we whip it good/You understand?/Yo man it's understood/We be winning tournaments like Tiger Woods/Bump it in your suburbs or bump it in your hood"; on their hit "Joints & Jam," they declare, "We about mass appeal no segregation/got black to Asian and Caucasian/Sayin' that's the joint that's the jam/turn that shit up play it again."
The Peas make it clear that their intention is to buck the (hip-hop) status quo. On "A8" they rap, "I wonder what really makes the world go round/not thugs, 'cause thugs go round to bring other brothers down." On "Fallin' Up" they boast, "We don't use dollars to represent/We just use our innocence and talent."
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"I don't really listen to hip-hop on a daily basis," says Will, "and if I do, it's circa '87 to '93 and a few other things that came out of the cracks. Mostly, I've been listening to Stereolab, Portishead, Beastie Boys, Beck, Sergio Mendes and Astrud Gilberto."
So the Peas are coming at you from all angles, making waves in all the funky quarters of the galaxy. And, unlike their forebears De La Soul, the Peas know how to throw together a hip-hop show. At their recent record-release shindig at El Rey, a large, multiethnic contingent made up of suburban wiggers, serious hip-hop junkies, music-industry slime, future groupies and local DJs turned out and danced. The Peas' eight-piece stage band was in full-on groovin' effect as Taboo incited a pogo pit by bouncing through the crowd. All three of the Peas - who originally came together as a dance group called Tribal Nation - bust some serious bop moves, multiple back-flips, splits and headstands, and Taboo has been known to let loose with a little Bruce Lee-style ballet. At El Rey, Taboo crowd-surfed across the packed dance floor with the serene grin of a Buddhist monk.
The Peas look not unlike the rosy future of hip-hop. At the end of the set, Will said to the audience, "You can go tell your moms and your friends that Black Eyed Peas is cool, 'cause we ain't no threat." They may not be packing anything but hella-nice rhymes and style up the wazoo, but Black Eyed Peas are most definitely a threat to every cliche MC in the universe.
Black Eyed Peas appear as part of the Smokin' Grooves Tour at the Universal Amphitheater on Thursday, August 13, and Friday, August 14.